Barack needs to return to his roots as an organizer for Obama Center to flourish

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Former President Barack Obama moderates a roundtable discussion at the South Shore Cultural Center about the Obama Presidential Center in May 2017. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

If former President Barack Obama wants the Obama Presidential Center to define his legacy, he’s going to have to let life go full circle.

That means climbing off his presidential high horse and returning to his roots as a community organizer.

While black folks — the powerful and the powerless — shed tears of pride when Obama was elected the first African-American president, when it comes to developing the center to memorialize that presidency, Obama is being treated like a tricky politician.

At the outset, it was surprising that grass-roots activists insisted the Obama Foundation enter into a community benefits agreement (CBA), as a way of guaranteeing promises made.


Once Obama announced his library would be in Chicago, it was as if the former president had suddenly turned into a greedy real estate developer.

And unfortunately, the manner in which the project was unveiled wasn’t inclusive.

For instance, while the Obama Foundation invited the crème de la crème of black Chicago, the activist community — the ranks from which Obama sprang — didn’t make the list. That was their first big mistake.

The relationship between the Obama Foundation and the activist community has been adversarial ever since.

An olive branch recently offered by the Obama Foundation — a community commitment on jobs, affordable housing and economic development — hasn’t changed that.

Instead of appeasement, the voices of discontent have gotten louder.

The CBA Coalition, comprised of more than a dozen groups, planned a “vigil against displacement” ahead of Thursday’s meeting by the Chicago Plan Commission to consider zoning applications for the project.

This strained relationship between the former president and Chicago’s activists has been widely publicized.

In an interview with Politico Magazine earlier this year, Jeanette Taylor, the education director for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Taylor said she asked the former president why he wouldn’t sign a CBA.

Taylor said Obama told her, “I was a community organizer . . . I know the neighborhood. I know that the minute you start saying, ‘Well we’re thinking about signing something that will determine who’s getting jobs and contracts and this and that,’ . . . next thing I know, I’ve got 20 organizations coming out of the woodwork.”

“He’s got a lot of nerve saying that,” Taylor told Politco. “He’s forgotten who he is. He forgot the community got him where he is,” she said.

Among other things, these groups are pushing for a city ordinance that would set aside 30 percent of new and rehabbed housing for low-income residents.

But here’s the thing: Many of the voices trying to control the Obama Presidential Center don’t live in the neighborhoods that will be impacted.

Some of these drive-by naysayers will raise a ruckus, then go back to their homes in Hyde Park, on the North Shore and in Wilmette — communities with well maintained parks, bustling shopping districts, quality housing and good schools.

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Frankly, if the naysayers have their way, the Obama Foundation — like the Lucas Museum project — would pull up stakes and go elsewhere.

For instance, a little known group calling itself “Protect Our Parks,” has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block construction in Jackson Park. They accuse the Obama Foundation of an “institutional bait and switch” because the center will not include his official library.

Seriously. Who really cares?

What many of the residents I talk to want are the amenities that would come from having the presidential center for the first African-American president located in their neighborhood.

They also want a “seat at the table.”

“Why are they so afraid to even engage with local folk?” one homeowner asks.

Right now, there is so little trust between the Obama Foundation and grass-roots activists, we might as well be talking about the Chicago Police Department and Black Lives Matter.

On Wednesday, Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama were in Chicago hosting separate events. Obama met with the inaugural class of Obama Foundation fellows. Mrs. Obama hosted a roundtable discussion with 11 high school seniors  at the Stony Island Arts Bank across the street from the center site.

Now a powerful man of the world, former President Obama will never again have to worry about his place at the table.

But it’s not that powerful man who is going to gain the trust of community activists who know all too well how quickly promises disappear.

It is the community organizer.

Mary Mitchell and educator Leslie Baldacci are co-hosts of a popular new podcast called “Zebra Sisters” — a refreshing look at race relations from the viewpoints of two women – one black and one white. Mary and Leslie unwind awkward subjects and discuss current events with candor and humor. Subscribe (for free) on iTunes and Google Play Music — or listen to individual episodes on the Sun-Times’ website. Email Mary and Leslie at or give them a shout-out on the Zebra Hotline (312) 321-3000, ext. ZBRA (9272).

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